Clevedon Presbyterian Church
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Prison Escapes

April 22, 2018
Martin Baker

Sunday 22nd April 2018            Prison Escapes                        Martin Baker

Two weeks ago we completed a series on the Gospel of John.

We heard that Thomas didn’t believe the other disciples when he was told that Jesus had been raised by God.

He only came to affirm Jesus as Lord when he saw, and was invited by Jesus to touch, the scars and injuries of his execution.

Jesus says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’

And so in these few weeks we are hearing what belief in the risen Jesus means.

Last week we heard about the conversion of Paul.  Paul, remember, was on a quest to capture, torture and imprison the early Christians in Damascus.

And we also heard about the conversion of someone who was already a follower of Christ. A man named Ananias.  He had to overcome his fear and deep anger and hatred of Paul to lay hands on him, bring him the heading of site and finally baptise him.

Ananias came to believe that God actually had a plan even for his persecutor.

So Thomas, Paul and Ananias discover the power of what we call the Holy Spirit. In a major way. To change, to covert, to bring repentance, to be born again as Jesus says in the Gospel.

So today we follow this theme.  What must I do to be saved? Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  

Acts 16:16-34

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

quote:

I used to think that the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.

- Gus Speth, the former dean of forestry and environmental studies at Yale

It’s quite a story today. Paul is in Philippi in North Eastern Greece. It’s around 50 and he’s got Silas with him and Timothy. And possibly Luke who is telling the story.

Apparently it’s Paul’s  first time in Europe. They are going to a place of prayer. And they meet this slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.

It’s interesting that in the United States alone roughly 85,000 people work in psychic services and fortune telling and make about $1.5 billion in total wages a year. And that figure does not even begin to include other fortune tellers in the banking industry, economists and, of course, the weather office.

According to a book by William Sherden, ‘The Fortune Sellers’, fortune tellers have an absolutely appalling bad track record. He traces the most significant world events in the last 100 years and says that virtually none were predicted with any accuracy by anyone.

Anyway, Paul; and Silas are off to pray somewhere in Philippi and they meet this slave girl whose owners get money from her telling fortunes.

This slave girl is possessed with a spirit of divination (pneuma pythōna), literally "a spirit, a snake," the snake that symbolized the Greek god Apollo at the worship centre of Delphi. Like those young women at Delphi, she divines the future (she is a mantike, a mantic) for anxious souls who are willing to pay. Apparently she is very good at her craft, for her owners live well off her gift.

I’m sorry to say, but you are going to be hit by an asteroid tomorrow at 3.3 – fortune tellers never speak with precision.  But Mr David Meade, a so called ‘Biblical scholar’ has prophesied that the world is going to end on April 23rd, tomorrow.  And that story has been read by millions of people and is being reported by Fox News and the Sun Newspaper.  So David Meade and the Slave Girl in Philippi are making a lot of money for someone out of their predictions.

Our fascination with such things. Our willingness to pay billions of dollars to such people. It stems from what the Pope describes as the question about "What is the ultimate ineffable mystery which is the origin and destiny of our existence?"

Today we are told the answer to that question, and it has nothing to do with fortune telling.

But Pnema Pythona. We’ve got to be wary about these snake people.

The slave snake girl has got something right though.  She says these men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.

Human trafficking and the enslavement of vulnerable people for enormous profits.  The Herald has been running stories on his very subject over the last few weeks.  The power of the evil spirit that leads one person to enslave another for profit.  And Paul says, I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.

The power to deliver people from spirits. We keep doing the thing that is wrong, even though we know what is right.

The Christian agency which we support, Tearfund, last week published a list of clothes companies. Where do our clothes come from? Some companies benefit from the virtual enslavements of children in the production of clothes. I’ve put a list of the good and bad ones up on the wall.  

Anyway for their troubles, Paul and Silas get thrown into prison. Powerful forces at work here.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.

So they’re in prison. What Paul and Silas know, and what the jailer and the angry slave owning people of Phillipi don’t know, is that Jesus Christ is all about being set free.

Remember what Jesus said right at the start of his ministry in Luke 4.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

   because he has anointed me

   to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

   and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised at what happens next.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened.

No prisoners leave, but that does not mean that there is no captive who is set free.

We hear aobut the earthquake, the release of the shackles, the opening of the door, and the jailer's decision to kill himself rather than be dragged before the authorities to explain why all the prisoners were gone. Paul stops him just in time, whereupon the jailer asks one of Scripture's most profound questions, "What must I do to be saved?" (v. 30).

"Saved from what?" Sword in hand, the jailer was probably thinking about how to be saved from the wrath of the authorities. However, his question has come to mean much more, depending on who is asking it.

"What must I do to be saved?" is a personal question in search of a personalized answer. What must I do to be saved from what destroys me? What must I do to be saved from my particular bondage, my oppression addiction, emptiness, or boredom? There are countless ways to lose our way in this world or to be in bondage, just as there are many different threats from which we need to be saved.

"Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (vv. 30-31). The irony is that those who seem to be in prison are actually free in Christ, and the jailer, who supposedly has the keys to freedom, is actually the one shackled by his duty.

What duties shackle us today?

At the start of this passage, there are three different types of captivities; in the end, there is only one. In the beginning, there is, first of all, Paul and Silas's captivity to the Most High God. Second, there is the girl's slavery to a spirit of divination that makes her a prime target for exploitation. Third, there is the jailer's sense of duty, leading him nearly to take his life when he seems to have failed at his assignment. In the end, we find Jesus' prayer answered, with all of these captives finding their freedom in being bound to God.  Jesus, "I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one" .

Our story this morning is about all kinds of enslavement .  What must I do to be saved?  God’s grace in Jesus is so much bigger. It covers not just some internal spiritual process but is part of our entire lives.  Physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. The forces that enslave us are real and can be very powerful. But they do not have the ultimate word over our lives. That word is reserved for the God to whom we pray and of whom we sing in good times and bad, the God revealed to us not only in the resurrection but also in the cross of Jesus Christ. And the word that God speaks is like an earthquake.

Let’s agree with Gus Speth. To live as free people, to deal with the powers and forces of greed and fear and anger we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.

So today, as we ask that question with the jailer. What must I do to be saved? Let’s pray for the places within us that remain imprisoned to spirits of fear and greed and anger. Let’s pray for our world where people are still imprisoned unjustly and where children are manipulated and trafficked for the gain of others. Let’s pray that we can entrust our lives to Jesus, believe in Jesus, and be the healing, freedom bringing people he calls us to be.

AMEN